It has been a few weeks since I have had the time to sit down and write another blog post. Since my last post, the pace here at the University of Alberta Museums has picked up immensely. Recently we have opened up a new exhibition, Mountains and Water: Visions of the Land in Canada and China, featuring works from the Mactaggart Art Collection and the University of Alberta Art Collection.
Mountains and Water is an exhibition which celebrates the opening of the Jonathan KS Choi Cultural Centre of Canada in partnership with the China Institute. For this exhibition, I mostly helped with the installation of the Chinese art from the Mactaggart Art Collection , which mostly consists of hanging scrolls, along with some hand scrolls and albums. The hanging scrolls certainly provided the biggest challenge due to the nature of the art form. Hanging scrolls, as the name suggests, hang. Most of these scrolls are quite large, with many being nearly floor to ceiling in length. The longest of which was done by Wang Shimin in 1657, and is 107 inches long, or 8.9 feet! But, it is not actually the size of the hanging scrolls that provide the largest challenge for installation, but the physical nature of the scrolls themselves. Hanging scrolls are mounted on thin silk, so they are very fragile. This means that they have to be covered with sheets of Plexiglass in order to protect the scrolls. This is to prevent visitors to the exhibit from touching the scrolls as they are viewing them, or from accidentally brushing against them.
Though the Plexi does provide lots of protection to the hanging scrolls behind them, there are several cons to using Plexi as a barrier. Despite the name it’s not a typical kind of glass. Rather, the technical term is acrylic glass which means that a large portion is actually plastic compounds. This produces some issues, the biggest being the tendency to scratch, due to the plastic like qualities it exhibits. A badly placed scratch has the potential to greatly take away from the visitor experience. If I were to go to a museum, view a display and there was a scratch on the Plexiglass right in the middle of the object I was regarding, it would certainly draw my attention away from the item and towards the scratch. That is not what a visitor wants to be focusing on when they are attempting to view the display. This simply requires those installing the exhibition to be careful when handling the Plexi. Luckily, our installation went smoothly and we did not incur any damage!
Plexi does have its drawbacks, but compared to regular glass there are many pros. Plexi is incredibly resilient. It may be easy to scratch, or lightly damage but it is nearly impossible to completely shatter a sheet. It is the material that they use to surround hockey rinks, so if it is able to withstand a frozen puck that is moving at ninety miles per hour, it should be able to protect against an eager museum visitor who may accidentally poke it with their finger. Regular glass in contrast may be more scratch resistant, but there is the unpredictability of a scratch completely shattering the entire sheet. This would likely cause more damage to anything that it was originally intended to protect, which defeats the purpose of a protective covering in the first place.
Come check out some of these gorgeous hanging plexiglass sheets, as well as the art that they are protecting in Gallery A of the TELUS Centre. The exhibit features work from Chinese masters, such as Wen Zhengming and Qui Ying, as well as prominent Canadian artists, like Group of Seven members A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson. The exhibition is running from now until October 6. Hours are Thursday-Friday 12pm-5pm and Saturdays from 2pm-5pm. Find more information at the University of Alberta Museums website.
On the odd occasion when I do get a bit of a break from my busy schedule at the University of Alberta Museums, I try to not spend my time twiddling my thumbs waiting for the day to end. One suggestion I received from Associate Director Frannie Blondheim was to become more knowledgeable in the field of museum studies, or museolgy. Lucky for me there is a large amount of resources on museum studies that I can access. There is a large variety of topics ranging from theory, collecting, conservation, exhibits, and many more.
What I have been interested with in particular is literature on exhibition design and planning. Within the next month at the University of Alberta Museums we will be opening two new exhibitions. The first is opening on August 20th, Mountains and Water: Visions of the Land in Canada and China. This exhibit features work by prominent Chinese and Canadian artists, from the University of Alberta Art Collection and the Mactaggart Art Collection. This exhibit celebrates the opening of a new center for the China Institute at the University of Alberta. The second is a collaboration with the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies. Forgotten Fronts: The Austro-Hungarian Army in the Great War, focuses on Austro-Hungarian artifacts from World War I and is commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Wirth Institute, and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. This exhibition will be located in the Old Arts Building.
Through reading various books and articles on the topic I have become more appreciative as to all the work that goes into planning an exhibit. This can include simple decisions such as what type of font to use for the exhibit title, to lighting, to flow patterns of visitors. All of these are important and to be taken into consideration. They will affect the experience of the visitor and the effectiveness of the exhibition.
One very interesting thing which I learned, is how colours can drastically affect the visitors experience of the exhibition. In rooms where it is encouraged that visitors are excited and active the walls will often be painted a warm colour such as red. This is because warm colours stimulate the brain and will make those viewing the exhibit more energetic and active. Vise versa for cool colours like blue. Cool colour relax the brain and lead to subdued and relaxed atmospheres. Art galleries may often paint their walls dark blue in order to create a peaceful, quiet, and relaxing atmosphere in the room which translates to the guests. Next time you visit a museum I encourage you to take note of the colour scheme of the room and how it makes you feel while in the space.
Being able to have the time to read some of this material while I am getting hands on experience to what I am reading about is very beneficial. I am able to see some of the process and planning steps which are outlined in the literature and which I had to opportunity to take part in, as I drafted a tentative schedule preparing for the Forgotten Fronts exhibit. This will be a great asset to me in the future when one day I head to grad school for museum studies. I will have a jump start on some of the concepts and practices which I will be learning about.
I am sure that I will soon be losing the luxury of having down time to do some of this reading when out exhibition development goes into full swing. We will soon begin to install the exhibits and then after the official opening of the exhibit, I will once again be a gallery docent for Mountains and Water. But, while it lasts I will take every opportunity to become more knowledgeable in the museum studies field to hopefully have some useful input here at the University of Alberta Museums, and to get a jump on my future at grad school.
This week I have decided to take a different approach to my blog. Rather than provide the typical update of what I have been doing over the last week, I have taken the opportunity to gain some more insight into what some of my fellow summer student colleagues are up to. I sat down with University of Alberta Art Collection summer students, Georgia Ashworth and MorningStar Willier, and got to learn a little more about their work here at the University of Alberta Museums and what they think about life as a summer student!
Q: What are your backgrounds?
Georgia: I have a Bachelors of Arts in History from McGill University in Montreal.
MorningStar: I am in my second year of Native Studies with a minor in Anthropology here at the University of Alberta.
Q: What are your titles here at the University of Alberta Museums, and what do these roles entail?
G: I am a Collections Assistant [with the University of Alberta Art Collection (UAAC)] working on the Public Art Program. I am working on streamlining our copyright procedures and obtaining copyright licences for the artwork in the Art Collection, and will be writing art labels for the works on placement.
MS: I work as a Collections Assistant for the O.C. Edwards Ethnographic Collection, as part of the Art Collection, and I do research on the ethnographic artifacts.
Q: What drew you to these positions with the University of Alberta Museums?
G: I was hoping for an opportunity to gain more direct museum experience to further my career aspirations within the museum and heritage sector.
MS: My minor is anthropology and I enjoy the sociocultural side of anthropology, so working directly with ethnographic material, particularly Indigenous material, directly pertains to my degree and interests.
Q: Do you believe that it is important for young people to be able to receive summer positions at universities and museums such as the ones you have? If yes, why?
G: Yes, I believe it is very important. It is a great way for young people to gain experience in the museum field, and become more connected to their university.
MS: Yes, because it shows me what I can do with my degree after graduation.
Q: What would you say is the value of having an art and ethnographic collection such as this on a University campus?
G: I believe that as a university, for students studying in areas related to art or ethnography, it can be very important to be able to interact with and view the artifacts first hand instead of just reading about the material.
MS: I agree with Georgia, the chance to study the material in person is invaluable.
Q: What is the value of summer students doing this work, compared to other staff members?
G: The Young Canada Works program, which is the program that both MorningStar and I are part of, provides partial funding for our wages. This can help organizations which may not have a large budget for the type of work we do. Also it allows permanent staff members to focus on the big picture while students do some of the more time consuming work.
MS: We are able to do the work that other staff members are unable to fit into their schedules, due to other pressing matters.
Q: What is your favorite part of your jobs, and what are you looking forward to the most?
G: My favorite thing that I have been able to do so far is redesigning the copyright section for our online database. This should make it a lot more useful to our museum staff. I am also looking forward to writing art labels for the collection.
MS: My favorite part so far has been going into the O.C. Edwards Collection storage room and working directly with the artifacts. I am also looking forward to updating descriptions of the artifacts within our online database, which uses the software program Mimsy.
Q: What are your plans after these positions wrap up? Do you plan to stay in the museums field?
G: This fall I am starting a Masters degree in Archaeological Heritage and Museums at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Afterwards I am looking forward to continuing to work the the museum field.
MS: I am still unsure at the moment whether or not I will continue in the museum field , but I really enjoy the research and curatorial aspects of museum work so I think I may.
Q: Finally, do you have a favorite artifact or piece of art from the collection?
G: I like the Norman Yates mural, West and North, on the north side of the Education Building, and the Steinhauer, Treaty Bear sculpture in Main Quad.
MS: I love all of my collection, but really love the steer hide painting, from the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta.
This past week I have I have been working with Jennifer Bowser here at MACS. Jenn is our Collections Management Advisor, with a specialization in registration/preventative conservation.
Preventative conservation is a very important aspect of museum practice which needs to be undertaken in order to ensure the long-term preservation of objects in the University’s collections. Essentially, preventative conservation is what the name suggests: in a museum environment once an object is received, measures are taken to ensure that it will stay in the same condition that it was received for as long as possible. This is especially important due to the nature of many collections at the University. Preventative conservation is important to the health of teaching and research collections which are handled and used frequently. These measures can include regular cleaning, condition reporting, protective storage, and of course careful care and handling of museum objects. The main concept of preventative conservation is to catch issues which may lead to deterioration of the object before they become a problem, rather than allow them to progress to a point where there is permanent damage. Of course, this is at times impossible but it is the job of specialized museum professionals to prevent this deterioration as much as they can.
There are other factors rather than just the passing of time that come into play and affect the stability of a museum object. These other factors are called the agents of deterioration. There are 10 agents of deterioration and they are: fire, water, pollutants, physical forces (such as dropping the object), pests, light damage, incorrect humidity, thieves and vandals, incorrect temperature, and dissociation which is the loss of valuable information pertaining to the object. The agents of deterioration are internationally recognized in museum practise.
Damage from the agents of deterioration can occur over time from factors such as improper storage conditions, or through unexpected events, such as a fire, flood, or theft. It is important to protect against these agents as severe deterioration can even lead to the need to deaccession (remove) an object from a museum collection, a process that all museums try their best to avoid. For example, this is what happened recently to a piece of public art on the University of Alberta campus. Due to damage from vandalism and pests, a work of art that originally consisted of two chairs and a small table located on the north side of the Biological Sciences Building had to be removed from public display. The University will soon begin the process to permanently remove it from the collection as the damage is irreparable.
Some other preventative conservation projects I have worked on this week include:
- Cleaning of the Dentistry exhibit in Edmonton Clinic Health Academy
- Labeling and inventory check of Pathology Gross Teaching Collection
- Preparation of archival materials handout as reference for curators
As an emerging museum professional, it is of course my wish that all museums are able to keep every object in excellent condition and that none are ever damaged. Unfortunately, this is impossible as accidents and unforeseeable events do occur. But through working with Jenn and others at the UofA Museums, I have seen many ways in which to prevent deterioration before it becomes an issue and ensure the care and longevity of museum objects.
Since my last blog post I have changed gears from archaeology to entomology. Over the past two weeks I have been working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum. What this means is that I have been working with bugs, spiders in particular! The E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum is one of the oldest museums at the University of Alberta, being founded in the mid-1920s in what was then the Department of Entomology. The Department of Entomology was merged with five other departments in the 1990s to create the Department of Biological Sciences.
While in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, I had the chance to work with assistant curator, Danny Shpeley. What Danny has been getting me to work on is a very large donation of spiders that was donated to the Museum in 2017. This is a donation of about 26,000 spider specimens, from all over the world. Most of these spiders were collected in Canada, but there are also a great number from the United States, Mexico, Israel, and even more exotic places like Tanzania and Australia. I am taking a spider world tour from the comfort of my office chair! I have been slowly, but surely, making a dent in the donations, having completed work on around 400 specimens at the moment.
My job has been to refresh the alcohol, add an accession number into the vial, and database the information that is included on labels which are within the vials. These specimens are in vials that are filled with alcohol in order to preserve the spiders. Alcohol is used over pinning because spiders are soft-bodied, if they were pinned the spiders would shrivel up! So even though most of these spiders were collected in the 1960s, they look the same as the day that they were collected! The databasing is perhaps the most important part of my job. This is done on an Excel spreadsheet which will be uploaded to Mimsy, the University of Alberta Museums database. What makes these specimens valuable to the Museum is not necessarily the specimen itself, but the data. The data is what gives each specimen scientific importance. Information like where it was collected, the elevation, the habitat, and when it was collected can give researchers important knowledge of the species that they are looking at.
The reason for databasing is, much like my previous experiences in Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, to upload this data into an online database. This allows the public and researchers alike to learn more about a species and all that is involved with it. The most interesting part of the Virtual Museum for me was that you are able to see the distribution range of a species. Location is a crucial part of the databasing that I am doing, and the final product of thousands of data entries is a map where you can see the range of a species.
This data entry might not be the most glamourous work that I will be doing this summer, but it is perhaps some of the most important and valuable. Talking with the curator of the collection, Felix Sperling, he said something which has stuck with me, “On one hand this work is incredibly boring, but on the other it is incredibly important.” Databasing is a huge part of museum work, and this saying is probably the most accurate representation of it!
My time here at the E.H. Strickland is drawing to a close today, and I must say that I loved my time here! I have a newfound respect for bugs, and everything creepy crawly!
Since posting my last blog post I have had to opportunity to come work for two weeks in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. This is a teaching collection which has a large variety of archaeological material. For example, lithic material such as stone tools, pottery shards, and faunal remains. I have been helping to digitize some of the vast collection. This is the process of adding collections into digital databases so they are easily accessible. This allows researchers, museum staff, and the public to find certain items and browse collections. Digitization allows museums to make their collections accessible worldwide. At this point they have actually completed around 90% of the digitization project. I am helping to take photographs of some of the final items that are remaining. This involves taking pictures of items in a photo studio and then touching them up in Photoshop.
Photoshop, a popular computer program for editing photographs, has been the biggest learning curve for me these last few weeks. The difficult thing is that a camera lens does not see the world the same as a human eye. This means that for every image, I have to alter it to make sure that what you see on the screen looks like what you would find if you were looking for the artifact in the collection. What I have been able to do with Photoshop in just two weeks has astounded me! You are able to change anything and everything just by playing with the image. In the current digital climate, having a skill such as Photoshop will he very useful to me. Many museums worldwide are currently in the process of digitizing their collections. A working knowledge of Photoshop is a marketable skill for any future museum work I may be interest in!
Primarily I have been working with Shirley Harpham, the archaeological technologist for the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, which contains the Ami Collection. This is a large collection that was donated to the University of Alberta by Dr. Henri-Marc Ami. Dr. Ami did an excavation in France in 1925, mainly the site at Combe-Capelle, where he was able to excavate a total of around 300,000 artifacts, 100,000 of which he saved, from the Lower Paleolithic to Neolithic periods. This is a time frame of around 3.3 million years ago up to about 4000 years ago. I am primarily working with specimens from the Upper Paleolithic, which is about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Ami Collection was scattered to different Canadian universities with the University of Alberta being one of the recipients. The U of A has 1,876 specimens from Dr. Ami’s collection.
What I am mostly engaged with is a lot of lithic material, or stone tools, such as hand axes, scrapers, projectile points and hammer stones. It blew me away that after 50,000 years all of these flakes and tools as still sharp! You need to be careful, I have nearly cut myself a few times!
The highlight of these last two weeks for me has been being able to see more of the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. As an anthropology student I have had some time in the collection through class work, but to actually be able to see it and look around with Shirley and on my own has been fascinating! Looking at artifacts from a woolly mammoth’s tooth, to Acheulean handaxes originating from some of the original dig sites around Saint-Acheul, France has been this anthropology student’s dream come true!